Fifth Sunday after Epiphany 2003

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on February 9, 2003. 
Based on Mark 1:29-39 (5 Epiphany, Year B).

A stomach virus is a miserable thing. It’s been going around this winter and a good number of us have succumbed to it. I was stricken a couple of weeks ago courtesy of one of my children, who will remain nameless. And if you’re one of the chosen few who have been passed over this year, chances are you can vividly recall a time when you weren’t so lucky. It is miserable. The nausea, the fever, the achiness. The writhing uncomfortably on the bathroom floor as death seemed like a more attractive option than another round of, well, you get the picture. 

This must have been what Simon-Peter’s mother-in-law was going through when Peter and Andrew showed up with James, John, and this Jesus fellow. Mark’s gospel brings us into this story at the worst possible moment for this poor woman. She’s burning up with a high fever, probably drenched in sweat, weak and woozy. And as she contemplates the relative merits of living versus dying, she must have been just thrilled to hear that company had arrived. Her son-in-law shows up with his brother and three of his friends and I doubt they called ahead. It’s usually mothers-in-law who get the bad rap but I can’t imagine she was excited to see her son-in-law arrive with his entourage.

In a state of barely feeling human, quite possibly actually on the verge of death, she must have been even more outraged to hear footsteps coming toward her. Her daughter had actually married a man who would introduce someone to her in this state? It’s hard to know exactly what happened next. Jesus approaches this woman and takes her hand. Without a word he lifts her up. And the fever immediately leaves her. In an instant she is restored to health and wholeness. And in an instant she has become a disciple of Jesus. Like her son-in-law Peter, who just a day or two before dropped his fishing net to follow Jesus, this woman too experiences a profound moment of conversion. 

Now, at this point, the story seems to take an offensive twist. At least to our modern ears, attuned as they are to issues of gender equality. Because the instant Peter’s mother-in-law is cured, she begins to serve the men who had arrived. You can almost hear one of them saying, “Now that your fever’s broken and, well, as long as you’re up, could you get us some nachos and beer?” And in other ways, too, the whole story isn’t exactly a paragon of women’s liberation. The men are named, the woman is anonymous, identified only in relation to her son-in-law. The men are healthy, the woman is sick. And then this whole business of leaping to her feet after she’s cured, to bring them some food. 

But despite the difficulty of hearing this through the filter of our own culture, the story is actually quite progressive. Let me explain. What’s surprising here is not that Peter actually liked his mother-in-law, which in itself goes against our own stereotypes, but that he had a relationship with her at all. For the culture of first century Palestine, this was a boldly counter-cultural relationship to begin with. A man might have had an obligation to his mother and his sisters but he had absolutely no obligation to his wife’s mother. This relationship was such a non-factor that I don’t think there was even a term for it. So in showing concern for his sick mother-in-law, Peter refused to be bound by the cultural norms of the day. He treated this woman, to whom he had no obligation, as family. His mother-in-law was an integral member of the family unit, rather than the outsider that society would have dictated. So in this relationship we see love, inclusion, and a breaking down of barriers between people. Sound familiar? They’re all dominant themes of Jesus’ own ministry.

And the other important lesson in this story is that the woman’s act of service shows to a disbelieving culture that women, as well as men, can be disciples of Jesus. So taken in context this story is not one of male dominance but one of female liberation. This story helps to show that we are all, men and women alike, subservient to one master only, Jesus Christ. 

But back to the beer and nachos. On one level it’s just hard to reconcile this story with our modern value structure. But on another level her immediate response to serve makes perfect sense. She was called by Jesus and her response is to serve. Just as we are all called by Jesus and our response is to serve. We do this in different ways but when Jesus took this woman’s hand and lifted her, she was tangibly touched by Jesus and called to service in his name. Like Peter’s mother-in-law we, too, are touched by Jesus and called to service. We are touched by Jesus through our common worship, through prayer, and through acts of kindness done by our fellow pilgrims on this journey of life. We are called to service in his name each day and our response must be to serve Christ. That’s why we’re here this morning: to be touched by Jesus, to be lifted up by him, and then to reach out our hands to others in his name. It’s a work in progress, no doubt. And Jesus may reach for our hands when we’re feeling least prepared to look up and take it. But he’s always in our midst, always reaching out that hand to lift us up, to heal us, to convert us, and to call us to service in his name.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2003

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